The John M. Olin Center

Paper Abstract

91. Yiran Zhang, Rethinking the Global Governance of Migrant Domestic Workers: The Heterodox Case of Informal Filipina Workers in China, 05/2020.

Abstract: Migrant domestic workers often work in highly exploitative conditions. The emerging global governance agenda to enhance their working conditions at the International Labor Organization adopts a formal/informal dichotomized framework, which associates formality with rights, protection, and a decent work agenda, and informality with risks, harms, and an abolitionist agenda.

This article uses ethnographic methods to study a heterodox case of informal Filipina domestic workers in China. They are working against a ban on foreign domestic workers but earning the highest wages and arguably the least bad working conditions in Asia, including long weekly rest hours and independent lodgings. Absent formal legal protections and restrictions, the workers identify a market norm that enhances their bargaining positions, the autonomy to change the employer, the structure, and the sector of their jobs. Given certain socio-legal conditions, such as loose immigration law enforcement and a lively informal support network, workers can and do actively utilize this leverage to extract more surplus from their labor, finding themselves empowered by the informal setting. Through comparing this informal market to its real-world alternatives—formal immigration programs for domestic workers in other Asian jurisdictions that often tie the worker’s immigration status to a specific employment contract, this article proposes to look beyond the formal/informal dichotomy into the distributional consequences of both legal and non-legal mechanisms on workers’ bargaining powers.

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